Photo by Steve Likens
The Funk Brothers, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, Booker T and The MGs — most of us have heard of these incredible studio groups. James Jamerson and Bob Babbit at Motown Studios, David Hood at Fame and Muscle Shoals Sound, and Duck Dunn at Stax… these session players (and their respective studio affiliations) have defined what we know to be Motown, Soul, and R&B. While most of us associate Memphis soul music with Stax, another studio began churning out hit records with an equally funky group of players: Royal Studios and the Hi Rhythm Section. Bringing a sophisticated and syncopated groove to Al Green and Ann Peebles records, Leroy Hodges is a bass player to know.
So Who Is Leroy Hodges?
Leroy Hodges and his brothers, Teenie and Charles, grew up playing together in Memphis, TN. In the late 1950’s, they played with their father’s band, The Germantown Dots, and later formed their own group, The Impalas. They eventually met Willie Mitchell, a trumpeter, bandleader, and soon-to-be producer for Hi Records. Mitchell began putting a house band together with the Hodges Brothers, Al Jackson Jr. (of Stax and Booker T and the MGs), and the Memphis Horns. They began focusing on studio work in the early 1970s, working out of Royal Studios with Mitchell writing and producing.
With Teenie on guitar, Charles on organ, and Leroy on bass, the Hodges brothers recorded on countless records as the Hi Rhythm Section. Accompanied by horns, strings, and multiple background parts, the production was quite different from the records coming out of Stax. Heard on hits by Al Green, Ann Peebles, Otis Clay, Syl Johnson, and many others, they wrote a new chapter in the book of Memphis soul music. Hodges still lives in Memphis and can be found playing bass.
Let’s Talk Style
As we discuss some of the great jazz players, we often say “man, that cat really swings.” The player walks through changes and defines time alongside a dancing ride cymbal, pushing the song along with quarter notes that magically imply a triplet feel. As we listen to the great R&B players, we try to quantify the same thing, though it feels a bit awkward to say, “man, that cat really… souls?” Of course the music can swing, but it can also shuffle, be played straight, or magically combine all of those things. These soulful bass players focus on feel. They give life to a song by committing to a specific bass line or pulse, one that attaches to the kick drum while leaving space for the rhythm guitar and organ stabs. Their playing is difficult to replicate for their note duration is absolutely perfect and distinctly unique. They force us to move our bodies and crinkle our noses in response to the so-called stank. Hodges is this kind of bass player.
Listening to some of the great Al Green records, you many notice that Hodges creates unique, yet equally catchy and effective grooves for different sections of a song. He switches up the bass pattern to compliment the melody and song form, even while other members of the rhythm section adhere to the original part.
In addition to Hodges’ impeccable feel and rhythmic aptitude, his deep understanding of harmony is evident in the way he moves through chord progressions. He constantly experiments with ways to approach the root of a chord; sometimes he arrives by way of the lower 5th, sometimes by way of the third, the whole step above, or half step below. He uses quick triplet fills, often slipping in a 2-#2-3 lick to lift the song and highlight the third of the chord. This playful attention to the third also factors into his grooves and “hooks,” particularly as he emphasizes the minor third over a 7th chord to give the song a bluesier character.
Where Can I Hear Him?
“Let’s Stay Together” (Al Green: Let’s Stay Together)
A breakthrough hit for Al Green, this song features a deceptively complex bass line that integrates soulful arpeggios, voice leading, quick string raking, and the musical brightness of tenth chords. Hodges’ use of rhythmic variation and fills are Jamersonian in nature, though his overall approach and laid back feel set him apart.
“You Got Me Comin’” (Hi Rhythm Band: On The Loose)
This tune starts out with a sped up version of the tape with the bass and drums high in the mix. It quickly winds down to the original track and reveals the rhythm section we’re used to hearing on records like “Take Me To The River.” Hodges provides a steady pulse, a well-defined root-sixth-fifth bass groove, and a textbook R&B tone.
“I Can’t Stand The Rain” (Ann Peebles: I Can’t Stand The Rain)
The title track on a seriously funky record, Hodges creates a simple and solid bass hook using the root and minor third. Rounding it out with a chromatic triplet line, he acts as the perfect compliment to the drummer’s steady groove. During the verses, he provides a slightly irregular, yet absolutely perfect pulse. Rather than playing straight eighth notes, he sometimes plays with just two attacks and leans in to emphasize the kick drum.
How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with Leroy Hodges? Please share with us in the comments.